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I Wouldn't Start From Here

by Dr Nick Drengenberg

Copyright 2017 Nick Drengenberg, all rights reserved world-wide

Other articles by Nick — Confessions of a Do-er   |   The Bearable Lightness of Being   |   Floating in a Sea of Tissue   |   Posture: The Great Big Rump

There’s an old joke, where somebody asks for directions, and in reply they get told “hmmm, well I wouldn’t start from here…” This is a short article about presence, and how we maybe don’t understand that joke well enough…

Presence traditions, particularly mindfulness, are popular and making inroads into both personal and professional life, including into medicine.

The basic approach is as simple a thing as you could imagine. Just let go, let things be as they are, discover the power of letting yourself automatically respond to things rather than always reacting to them. To not try to make things right or any particular way, but to let them just be as they actually are. Whether that be in your body, in your activities, or whatever.

Common training in achieving this sort of presence includes people being encouraged to learn again how to pay attention to things, to focus on their senses; on what they see, hear, smell, touch, and so on. It’s this attentional workout that can lead people astray, however, or at least get them stuck in years of repetitive, fairly meaningless sensing. A sort of trap, where people continue to be as reactive as they always were, while simply changing the focus of their reaction towards their senses. Experienced mindfulness practitioners are aware of and speak of this trap sometimes, but usually offer little more than encouragement to just keep at it.

Is there a faster way to achieve this sort of presence, and at the same time can we understand this trap a little better? I’ll have a go.

There would be many ways into this argument, but let’s use the senses. The senses are in themselves a fairly abstract idea, coming out of scientific study of human beings and how they operate. We are all told from a very young age that we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and so on, and these are some of the most unquestioned core facts that we all share in our lives. And for most purposes it doesn’t really matter that these ideas don’t really make much sense (ha) at all.

It’s actually pretty obvious for example that we don’t see just with our eyes, our eyes are part of a head that is in turn part of a body that stands, sits and moves about. Saying that we see with our eyes is like saying we drive with a steering wheel, forgetting all of the rest of the car. The eyes are critical to seeing, no doubt, but as the great American psychologist J. J. Gibson once said, in describing what he called the “little man in the brain” theory of vision that most of us use:

“...there has to be a little man, a homunculus, seated in the brain who looks at this physiological image. The little man would have to have an eye to see it with, of course, a little eye with a little retinal image connected to a little brain, and so we have explained nothing...”. (see his 'The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception', p. 53, the Psychology Press Classic Edition).

What we see is tied up with how we interact with the world around us, and not just with our eyes — with all of us. The same applies to what we hear, or touch, or even taste. People enjoy illusions that ‘fool’ the senses, but most of this fooling is nothing of the sort, it’s usually just a artificial and restricted situation that doesn’t provide the body (rather than only the eyes, or ears, or whatever) with the usual full set of information it needs to make an assessment.

So what does this have to do with presence? If you think of a human being as something that takes in sense data, an organ at a time, and then combines it all together (usually in the brain, as the silly theory goes and which Gibson so beautifully mocked in the quote above), then yes you will suggest that the solution to being more present will be to look at things, and to listen to things, and to smell things, and so on. And then you’ll see people trying this, wandering around randomly looking at things, and touching things, and listening out for things, for no purpose other than ‘to be present’. Like a camper in the dark trying to recreate a full scene of their surroundings by waving a flashlight about.

In everyday life this isn’t how we actually function. Yes we see things, and hear things and smell them, but not usually as separate acts. We do all of these things as part of a wider, meaningful and purposeful context of life, in a given moment. We ‘have a look at what’s making that sound over there’, or we ‘try to find the source of that smell’, and so on. We don’t need to undertake some activity of looking and hearing and smelling and touching, those are components of an entire activity we may be up to.

The ‘monkey mind’ that mindfulness approaches for example talk about, where it’s fiendishly difficult to bring our attention to heel and get it focused on something, is maybe in itself a type of illusion. There are two basic ways of experiencing the world, and presence traditions often confuse them. One where we just are, in the moment, looking for what caused that sound, making a cup of tea, or whatever. Where we’re seeing and hearing and smelling and touching, but those are seamless aspects of the full experience we’re living — they don’t stand out as separate activities. And the other is where we do stand back from the world around us, and ‘reflect’ on it, so that there is a sense of me here and stuff over there. We ‘stop to think’, we disengage from our surroundings so that there’s a feeling of me-and-the-world, as separate things.

Both of these experiences are real, but they’re not the same. We tend to assume the latter is our baseline, but the former actually is. Just being somewhere, sitting talking to friends or whatever the situation, and not splitting ourselves us off from what’s happening. We’re just in the moment, as the saying goes, there’s is no sense of us being separate from what’s happening, we’re just there.

Here goes with the hypothesis. Presence traditions often struggle with monkey mind because they start in the separate-me experience and try to use it to achieve the non-separate-me experience. They ask people to train their attention on sights and sounds and smells, but people when just living ordinarily in the moment don’t divide up their experience in those ways. The lack of presence that mindfulness and other approaches try to address isn’t people forgetting to sense, it’s people trying to negotiate their entire experience from somewhere up behind their eyes, in their head. They’re stuck in that feeling of being a lone soul staring out at the world around them, forgetting that a lot of the time, when they’re at a party or otherwise having a good time, for example, all of that is forgotten and they’re just there, seamlessly.

We can all experience just being there, right now. And we do that every day, we may retrospectively think that when we’re having a swim or enjoying the sunshine, that it was ‘me enjoying the sunshine and the swim’. But at the time there was no real sense of ‘me’ there at all, we were just in the moment. Our experience at that moment was sun and water, not me-sensing-sun-and-water.

All you need is to be aware of these two ways of experiencing the world: as just there, or as a separate thing that you’re looking out at. And then don’t confuse them. Don’t try to be just there by being that separate soul staring out at the world, madly taking in ‘sense data’. That may give you a type of presence, but as the joke says, for full presence, I wouldn’t start from there… that’s a surefire way to get a monkey in your head.


There is a small biography of personal details about the author below.

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About the AuthorDr Nick Drengenberg

Nick Drengenberg trained and worked as an engineer, before working as a teacher of high school students for almost 10 years. During this time he also trained in philosophy, and now works as an administrator at a University, with active research interests in a variety of areas, including the LearningMethods approach.

He recently co-authored a book on learning analytics, which explored how technology and education have not really ever understood each other very well, and what to do about it.

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